Daylight hours are short and late winter days are agonizingly long. Feeding cattle becomes a weary chore after mid January. There’s the mud. And the cold. And darkness. The days seem to blur together. After all, you do the same activity day after day. It always seems as if we can survive the month of January, we can allow ourselves to enjoy making plans for spring.
February brings hope. By this time of the year, I’ve already been through the stack of seed catalogs that have found their way to my mailbox. Some of my favorites are Totally Tomatoes, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, HPS Seed and Johnny’s Seeds. Those are my old, tried and true seed suppliers. I spend hours making plans and I place orders. I love retrieving the seed packets from the mailbox.
During the month of February, I begin planting seed trays in my greenhouse. This year, I had a couple of adorable nieces help me prep the trays. Spoiler: the seeds did well and I’m positive it was due to the high quality help.
Now, germinating seeds in north Alabama in February is not an outdoor activity. After all, our average last freeze date is in early April. And even then, it is not unheard of for a freeze to occur in late April. Freezing temperatures = death for warm weather loving plants.
However, I’ve modified a section of my greehouse to provide my seed trays with the warmth they need. I have a raised garden bed inside of the greenhouse. Afer allowing it to heat for several days, by keeping the greenhouse closed up tight, I use this raised bed as a geothermal resource.
My greenhouse is not insulated and does not have an external heat source, so the air inside chills quickly at night. The sun warmed soil in the raised bed releases a small amount of heat each night. This helps the seed trays stay warm enough for the seeds to be viable. Heat mats are also placed underneath my trays, to increase the temperature to the optimal 75 to 80 degrees needed for germination. I also consistently cover my seed trays with foam insulation board at night in order to hold all of this necessary heat in.
Containers (recycled juice bottles) filled with water also provide a little extra heat. Those are placed near the seed trays and they release a bit of heat during the night.
This plan works well for me. Last night the outside temperature was in the low 20s and my seedling trays were a toasty 60 degrees. Germination of tomato seeds will not happen if they are a consistent 60 degrees, but the trays spend most of the daylight hours at the optimal 75-80 degrees, which has allowed them to germinate well.
I’m always glad to see those first little seedlings pop out of the soil. But I’m even happier when the plants are repotted and begin to produce a healthy root system.
Gardening is a learning experience. I’ve enjoyed digging in the dirt and learning about plants since I was a child. Over the years, there have been plenty of goofs. I have killed more than my share of plants. But, every now and then, I find an easy success.
One of my best accidental finds was during last year’s gardening season. The boys and I tried our luck with milkweed. We planted the seeds in the garden and paid them no attention. The plants grew by leaps and bounds and by summer, they successfully attracted the Monarch butterflies we were hoping to see.
The survival of the Monarch butterfly is dependent on milkweed plants. Apparently, the milkweed plant is one of very few food soures for their caterpillars. Milkweed is not in abundant supply, so this has an impact on the Monarch having a successful life cycle. No food means no life for the Monarchs.
The boys collected a few caterpillars and brought them inside to observe their life cycle. The transformation was thrilling to watch.
We released the adult butterflies into our lantana plants (another Alabama summer loving plant).
We will likely plant milkweed again and if you have garden space, I would encourage you to do the same. It’s very easy to do and it is so fun to watch the Monarch life cycle. Our milkweed seeds came from Baker Creek. The website is rareseeds.com
When the winter days feel hard, I try to remember that every season serves its purpose. Winter is about rest and restoration in the garden. An agricultural lifestyle naturally lends itself to the anticipation of seasons and the thrill of watching things grow. After all, “Farming is a profession of hope.” – Brian Brett.
Thanks for reading,